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Matter (via Middle High German matërje from Latin materia = matter, subject, cause, substance, originally materies = wood, logs, lumber, related to Latin mater , mother ', and matrix ) is a term for the substance from which all things of World exist, regardless of its appearance . The more precise definition of this very general term has shaped the view of nature in physics and philosophy since its origins and is still the subject of attempts to explain it today. Basically ( fundamental question of philosophy ) materialists and idealists argue whether there is a substrate corresponding to matter that can be ontologically understood as an object or property and can be distinguished from other ontological terms, such as spirit , form or idea .

In everyday language, the term “matter” is often used synonymously with “ material ” or “ substance ”, also in the sense of “ subject or object of an investigation, a scientific field or a subject” (“a complicated matter”). In the teaching is in this context of curriculum spoken.

Training the concept of matter

Even the pre-Socratics were looking for a primordial material ( arché ) that underlies all other things. For this purpose, objects of sensual experience were used which appeared suitable due to certain properties (wide distribution, changeability). For Thales of this primordial matter that was water , for Anaximenes the air , for Heraclitus the fire . Empedocles developed a doctrine of the four elements that added the earth to the substances mentioned .

The question arose, therefore, of the relationship between primordial matter and the things of sensory experience. For Thales, Anaximenes and Heraklit everything arose from the transformation of the respective primordial matter. In contrast, Parmenides represented the immutability of beings as the supreme principle. Empedocle's doctrine of the four elements represents a middle way, which regards the elements themselves as unchangeable, but the objects perceptible to the senses as a mixture of the original substances. Change is therefore possible by changing the mixing ratios of the four primary substances. Anaxagoras founded a similar doctrine of mixing, but with an infinite number of basic substances. For Anaximander, however, the basic substance of everything that had become was the apeiron , a single, indefinite basic substance that is unlimitedly available and indefinitely divisible.

Democritus and his teacher Leukipp did not see matter as infinitely divisible, but rather as consisting of the smallest units, the atoms . Through various arrangements, their atoms result in all other things, right down to the senses and the soul . Democritus and Leukippus are considered to be the founders of the concept of the atom, which has been very influential in modern times.

The concept of matter was also developed as a concept abstracted from things of sensory experience. With Chora and Hyle, Plato and Aristotle coined abstract terms for a primordial substance from which all sensibly perceptible things emerge through the working of an idea or impressing a form , or for the disposition of objects to be shaped by forms. In Cicero's Latin translation, the Aristotelian hyle became materia and thus our matter .

Outside of Europe, similar terms of primordial matter developed, such as the Indian Prakriti or the Chinese Hun Dun . The Taoism also developed a model of the elements ( Wu Xing ).

Matter as a counterpart to the idea or form

In his dialogue Timaeus, Plato develops an idea of ​​the world in which the Demiurge , a benevolent creator god , intervenes in disordered matter, the Chora , in order to form the cosmos and all things from it. The demiurge orients himself to the world of ideas and forms everything physical as a replica of the eternal ideas. This relationship between things and ideas comes e.g. B. in Plato's allegory of the cave in which the apparently real, sensually perceptible things are understood as mere shadows of ideas, of true beings ( ousia ). Through the intervention of the demiurge, the elements earth, water, air, fire and ether emerge from the chora. These five elements have the geometric shape of the five Platonic solids and form the basis for all other solids. Their geometric definition makes it possible to set up mathematical relationships between the elements and for their combination. This idea anticipates some later scientific concepts of matter ( crystallography , symmetries , stereochemistry ).

Aristotle develops a similar dichotomy between the general, the form and that which is formed, matter ( hylé ). Reality ( entelecheia ) arises from formed matter , matter in this sense is the possibility ( dynamis ) of being formed (see act and potency ). Aristotle also describes matter as a logical predicator ("x is matter for y"), which enables a hierarchical structure of things from the simple to the complex. To this end, he introduced the materia prima as unformed original material, which forms the materia secunda through shaping . This materia secunda can in turn be materia prima for a thing of more complex form, and so on. This principle can be found among the alchemists , who strived for the transformation of matter in higher forms ( transformation ), but also in the modern world view of physics.

By using the term hylé to interpret the statements of his predecessors, including those of Plato in the Timaeus , Aristotle ascribes these statements, which blur the difference between their approaches, which consist in the search for a basic substance, and his concept of matter. He sets himself apart from the pre-Socratics in that he no longer regards matter as a certain set of predetermined basic elements and processes of becoming and change as their quantitative rearrangement. The pre-Socratics only postponed the problem by this approach because the question of the origin of the basic elements themselves remains open. For Aristotle, matter is what can be determined by forms and therefore does not exist independently of its object.

Matter as a counterpart to spirit

In everyday life and in most scientific considerations, the existence of matter is not questioned, since it constantly leads to sensory experiences, both directly and in investigations and experiments with the aid of technical aids. However, such an argument for the existence of matter presupposes the premise that everything exists that can be observed by us humans in any form. Both the validity and the necessity of this premise have been questioned. In addition, this consideration raises the question of the relationship between the viewer and matter, for example whether he or she exists independently of it or not. This leads to the concept of the spirit , to the question of its existence and to the mind- body problem . These questions are very fundamental and the answers to them justify completely different philosophical schools that have also influenced the scientific terminology. These schools include dualists , who view mind and matter both as existent, but must be distinguished from one another, and monists , who view either only matter or only mind as the primary and truly existent.

Supporters of materialism assume the existence of matter and see anything but its manifestations, especially sensory experiences and the spirit. Democritus is seen as an early supporter of this direction, in the 18th century La Mettrie and d'Holbach are to be mentioned as important representatives . This school of thought was also promoted in the 19th century by natural scientists such as Carl Vogt or Jakob Moleschott . Laplace, for example, developed a strictly deterministic world view in which any further development could be precisely calculated in advance if one knew the state of the world at a certain point in time ( Laplace's demon ). The primacy of matter over consciousness is the foundation (see Basic Question of Philosophy ) of materialism as dialectical and historical materialism of Marx , Engels and Lenin .

In contrast, there is idealism, which gives the mind a primary existence. A distinction is made between whether it is a general spiritual principle ( objective idealism ) or the concrete consciousness of the person ( subjective idealism ). Berkeley's sentence: "Esse est percipi" (to exist is to be perceived) is characteristic of subjective idealism. The currents of constructivism are also related to this school of thought .

Finally, in dualism, both spirit and matter are recognized as existing independently of one another. Descartes solved the mind-body problem in this way by assuming that both can interact. Leibniz went one step further and rejected any interaction between mind and body. Karl Popper and John Eccles are considered modern representatives of dualism.

Concept of matter in physics

In physics, matter is the generic term for all objects of observation that have mass.


  • Eisler, Rudolf 1904: Dictionary of philosophical terms . 2 vols. Historically-source-wise edit. v. Rudolf Eisler. 2., completely reworked. Berlin edition.
  • Göpel, Wolfgang / Ziegler, Christiane 1991: Structure of Matter: Fundamentals, Microscopy and Spectroscopy. Stuttgart, Teubner.
  • Gräfen, Hubert 1991: Lexicon of materials technology . Düsseldorf VDI publishing house.
  • Hund, Friedrich 1978: History of physical terms . Mannheim, BI science publisher.
  • Jammer, Max 1964: The concept of mass in physics . Darmstadt, Scientific Book Society.
  • Mainzer, Klaus 1996: Matter: from primordial matter to life . Beck, Munich, ISBN 3406403344
  • Mutschler, Hans-Dieter 2002: Natural Philosophy . Stuttgart, Kohlhammer.
  • Russell, Bertrand 1992: The analysis of matter . London, Routledge.
  • Schermaier, Martin Josef 1992: Materia: Contributions to the question of natural philosophy in classical Roman law . Böhlau, Vienna.

Web links

Wiktionary: matter  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Article "Matter". In: Georg Klaus, Manfred Buhr (Hrsg.): Philosophical dictionary. 11th edition, Leipzig 1975.
  2. Cf. on the need for interpretation of physical models with regard to a concept of matter e.g. B. Hans-Dieter Mutschler: Natural Philosophy. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2002, pp. 108–115 and ders .: Materie. In: Basic Concepts of Natural Philosophy. [Version 1.0]. On the interpretation problems of the theory of relativity with regard to the concept of mass and matter cf. the relevant section in the Matter (Philosophy) article .
  3. Henk H. Kubbinga: La théorie de la matière de 'donors'. In: ZRWM von Martels (Ed.): Alchemy revisited. Proceedings of the international conference on the history of alchemy at the University of Groningen April 17-19, 1989. Leiden / New York / Copenhagen / Cologne 1990 (= Collection de travaux de l'académie internationale d'histoire des sciences , 33), pp. 133-138.
  4. Keyword matter. In: Hist. Wb. Philos. 5, Darmstadt 1980, Col. 871-876.
  5. Ernst Otten, Repetitorium Experimentalphysik , Chapter 1.5 "Matter and Mass"